- 5 Sep 08, 09:24 GMT
What is it about some technology companies that inspires enthusiasm, even love, amongst millions of consumers? People who would never dream of becoming fans of their bank ( Woooooo...let's hear it for Barclays!!!) or an oil company (I love you BP!!!), develop an emotional attachment to the products and personalities which emerge from firms like Apple, Nokia, Nintendo and, yes, even Microsoft.
Over the last decade Google has been one of the big beneficiaries of this cult of fandom. First, because out of nowhere it emerged with a product that did the job so much better than anything else. Then because it was seen as the smart, scrappy kid taking on the big boys of the internet - or rather one very big Seattle-based bruiser.
And when it arrived on the stockmarket with 2004's IPO, it reinforced that edgy, radical image. The first line of its so-called 'Owner's Manual for Shareholders' read: "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one." There was much talk from Larry Page and Sergey Brin of giving the world access to information and great play was made of the company's ethical stance, summed up with the motto "Don't be evil."
Over the last four years, it has sought to retain the affection of its many fans, by offering them more and more for nothing - from Google Earth, to Google Docs, to Chrome. But somehow I feel the love is beginning to fade. Why?
Well the scrappy kid has grown up into a muscle-bound giant which, in the eyes of some web developer pygmies, is the new playground bully. It may claim that it is just a technology start-up, constantly looking for cool new tools to make us all more productive - but it is rapidly becoming an advertising and media giant, with as much domination of some sectors of the online market as Microsoft has over operating systems.
It may , with some justification, paint itself as a champion of open-source - but users of its new Chrome browser were quick to ask questions about some pretty scary terms and conditions, since amended by Google. And it may claim to be a champion of liberty - but Amnesty International and others will respond with one word - China.
But the main bone of contention in the relationship between Google and its users is privacy. Google loves us so much it wants to know everything about us - so that it can help us live better lives. But users are beginning to suspect that we're being, well, used - that Google just wants to know us better so that it can send us more adverts and sell us to its trading partners. When Eric Schmidt said earlier this year that he wanted the search engine to be able to answer questions such as "What shall I do tomorrow?" or "What job shall I take?", did you think "cool" or "creepy"?
So a decade of extraordinary innovation is worth celebrating, and Google is continuing to surprise and delight with new products. But it is also becoming just what Page and Brin said it would not become - a conventional company. Hardly surprising - like Apple, Microsoft, Nokia or Nintendo - its first duty is to its shareholders, and their returns depend on Google grabbing an ever larger slice of the online advertising market.
However, all of those happy, shiny, Googlers in their multi-coloured offices with the free muffins had better get used to one thing. The early passion of your users is fading. We're now in a conventional, commercial relationship - and if someone else comes along offering something better, we're off.
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